Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Diversity of Language

If you are interested in thinking about fantasy languages - at the level of sound rather than the technicalities of grammar, vocabulary and so on - you could do worse than subscribe to WikiTongues on YouTube, a collection of videos of people speaking various languages. Some of them may not be native speakers, or entirely proficient, but most seem authentic.

Just for fun, here are examples from around the British Isles. First, Welsh:

Second, Scottish Gaelic:

Third, Manx:

And now here are some from further afield. First, Mingrelian:

Now Mapudungun:

And Tibetan:

Friday, 12 October 2018

Old Blog Renaissance

As you may well be aware, Google+ is disappearing next year (at least as a public social media platform). It will be a shame to see it go - but there are undoubtedly benefits. Life is all about trade-offs. G+ had its good points: it made networking easier, and was more informal - there's no question a lot of products have come into being that would not have done without its existence, because of the ease with which it facilitated creative partnerships. And it was a great way to get players for online games - the biggest advantage of all.

But there were opportunity costs. A lot of my G+ feed seemed to be perpetually clogged up by political discussions, vaguebooking, and other "noise" (the polite way of referring to it). More importantly, I think a lot of online discussion about traditional D&D and other old games migrated to G+ around 2012-2014, and blogs suffered as a result. We lost a lot as a consequence - blog entries may be slightly more detached and staid than G+ discussions, but they are also longer and more carefully written, and more thoughtful. Social media saps nuance and rewards pithiness at the expense of real engagement.

I also think G+ had to a certain extent run its course for me anyway; I had started to visit it less and less, because discussion there was it seemed to me becoming less and less about games and more and more about peripheral subjects. I also think - although I don't have much evidence of this, just a vague sense from looking at traffic sources for my blog - that the platform may have been slowly dying off as a place for "OSR"-types to congregate anyway; there recently seems to have been more vitriol and more shameless plugging of product and rather less interesting chat, and I have certainly been getting fewer hits from it than I would have done in, say, 2013.

So I'll be sorry to see G+ disappear, but I think there will be a welcome rebalancing, now, in the favour of the blogosphere. The beginnings of this are I think already developing, and I must say I feel like my blogging habits have been slightly reinvigorated this week. Onwards and upwards: the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Seizing the Initiative

Initiative is a very deep and complicated subject. We all know it when we see it - typically when watching a sporting event. Suddenly, it seems as though one side gains the capacity to act, while the other can only react. The reasons why this happens, though, are not always easy to elucidate. Sometimes it can be put down simply to a sudden flash of individual inspiration - a football manager makes a substitution which makes a decisive impact on the game; a boxer lands a solid punch which momentarily stuns his opponent; a bowler gets a fire in his belly and somehow gets an extra few miles per hour from the ball (cricket fans will remember Mitchell Johnson's complete destruction of Jonathan Trott on day two of the 2013 test at the Gabba, which came out of the blue and not only gave Australia the initiative for the match, but the entire 2013/2014 series - and caused Trott to effectively lose the initiative for the remainder of his career). But other times it seems to simply be part of the natural ebb and flow of a game: when two teams are roughly equally matched, they seem to take turns with the initiative in a way that is hard to attribute to any one factor and can seem to happen almost at random.

We also know it from military history, too. I think the most famous example has to be Thermopylae, which according to cliche gave the Greeks the chance to "wrest" the initiative (when is the word "wrest" ever used but in that context?) from the Persians; other examples are the Battle of Kursk (after which the Wehrmacht "never regained the initiative" on the Eastern front) and Napoleon's failure to "wrest" the initiative at the Battle of Borodino by committing the Imperial Guard, after which he, er, "never regained the initiative" in the Russian campaign. You almost imagine "the initiative" as a physical entity in these descriptions: you take it, seize it, wrest it - reach out and grab it, almost. And then do your best to make sure the opponent doesn't grab it back.

D&D initiative is a bit milquetoast in comparison: if one party is surprised, the other has initiative, but otherwise...roll a d6 and the highest wins. This is modified in various editions, but even then in a boring way, taking into account Dexterity and so forth. It can add some dramatic tension and unpredictability, which in some sense reflects the chaotic and unforeseeable nature of "initiative" itself, but it doesn't give anybody the opportunity to, in British sporting parlance, "seize the game by the scruff of the neck" and, well, wrest it.

What if there was a rule that went something like as follows?

When one side is surprised and the other is not, the side that is not surprised has initiative for the entire encounter.
Otherwise, roll a d6 to determine which side has initiative for the entire encounter.
A side which "has initiative" acts first.
A side which does not have initiative can attempt to "wrest" it from the other. The method for doing so is as follows:
The player (or DM if acting for NPCs) announces his character is attempting to wrest the initiative by either carrying out an attack or - at the DM's discretion - performing a difficult task. He declares his intended action in the ordinary way at the start of the round. If he succeeds in hitting his target or performing the declared task, he wrests initiative and his side has initiative from the next round onwards. If he fails, in the next round he cannot act at all because of loss of focus.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Productivity Rules

I decided to get serious with myself about two years ago: no more wasting time. This was a gradual process. I stopped using Twitter and Facebook first. Then I got rid of my smartphone - except for listening to podcasts at the gym and occasionally keeping up with WhatsApp (I keep it in a drawer in my office most of the time). Since around June I have targeted email and device use in general: I don't check email of any kind before noon, and I am off grid by 7.30pm (TV and internet) - no exceptions. In the last two months I have also stopped going to online news websites.

What have I learned from this?

1. I am much more productive. The thing that has probably made the most difference here is cutting down on email and on evening internet use. I now write huge amounts longhand in the evening and get shitloads done in the morning for my "real job". I used to think I had a short attention span. What I've discovered is that having the internet always available, and the TV always on, shorten your attention span and it doesn't take long for you to learn how to lengthen it once those stimuli are removed.

2. Not having a smartphone means not having your headphones on all the time when outside, and it turns out that's really nice - almost like a blessed release from the tyranny of having to constantly be entertained. You start to savour opportunities to just be: a pleasant quasi-meditative state in which you just listen to what's around you and let it stimulate idle thoughts. I also get much more reading done during my commute.

3. Not using social media very much (I am still using G+ in much reduced form) makes a massive difference to your mental health. I was not particularly depressed or anxious before, but I did use to notice that after spending a lot of time dicking around on Facebook or Twitter I would begin to feel edgy, irritable and slightly out-of-sorts - a feeling of vague disappointment with myself and the world. That's gone away. 

4. I haven't missed any major news stories but I have missed a vast amount of inconsequential clickbait shite. Now if I ever do look at, for example, the BBC news website, it has a truly surreal quality - like news made up in a parallel universe by somebody trying to parody what he thinks is "news" here. 

5. Sometimes you want to take a photo but can't, because you don't even have a camera anymore that isn't inside a phone. This is the main disadvantage I've discovered.

6. The second disadvantage is that writing text messages takes ages, and smartphone users have a habit of sending you streams of messages all in one go, so by the time you've finished replying to their first text they've already sent about 5 others.

7. The urge to check your phone and/or email goes away pretty quickly - within about 48 hours. As time goes on you begin to resent having to do it at all, and frequently leave the house forgetting to even take your dumbphone.

8. You become by turns more optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, interacting with your fellow human beings in the ways that nature intended and through those ways alone, you generally feel happier and more comfortable, because you see people as they really are: generally decent, nice, community-minded, and lacking in extremism. You don't get to see them through the lens of social media, which turns everybody into an arsehole. On the other hand, you quite often find yourself looking around at all the people glued to their smartphones, compulsively and robotically scrolling as if they are getting paid for it, and despairing about the human race. (These feelings darken even further when looking at parents doing this while their children sit in puzzled and slightly sorrowful silence wondering when Mum/Dad is finally going to acknowledge they are alive.)

I offer these thoughts to you from a position of slight smugness, but you can join me: I don't regret any of the changes I have made whatsoever, and to bring things back on topic, so to speak, if you wish you had more time to devote to this hobby, the above are practical solutions to get it. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Hornbill Roc

The biggest and mightiest of all the inhabitants of the Tree are a pair of rocs, male and female. Far from being beasts of legend, they are in fact the only inhabitants of the tree who can be easily seen from the ground below, flying to and from their perches in the distant high canopy on clear days (or disappearing into the clouds when it is overcast). In spring, when the female is sequestered in their nest - a huge gouge in the trunk of the Tree itself - the male can often be seen bringing her food, his wing beats making a sound like that of distant thunder or the rumble of a far-off avalanche.

The nest itself is so large, to accommodate a bird that is over 120' long, that it hosts its own small world of predators and prey: giant beetles feast on the rotting fruit refuse littering the nest bottom; giant ticks lurk in the mass tangle of the bedding, waiting to attach themselves to succulent bloody flesh; armoured lice grope about feeding off whatever filth sloughs off the bodies of birds. In the "roof" of the nest a clan of swiftlet-people build their upside-down dwellings and fight off the predations of the burrowing grubs which dwell in the wood of the trunk; at night they leave to carry out their own raids on their enemies elsewhere. And the walls of the nest are full of cracks, crevasses and crannies, where there hide ambush predators: spiders, centipedes, snakes and much worse.

Almost nobody has visited the rocs' nest; fewer still do it and return. It is rumoured that down in its deepest, dankest, dirtiest place there lives a fakir who survives off fruit and other cast-offs and pursues complete self-abegnation - and this gives him insights into the nature of reality which no other is yet to grasp.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Notes on a Giant Tree

I am making a Yoon-Suin-based supplement set in a giant 2-mile high tree in the Mountains of the Moon. The introduction is here; I've decided to post a few further details for those who are interested.

The tree can be thought of as having four separate areas or sections: the base, the roots, the trunk, and the branches.

The base is a town built and run by six religious cults, each of whom worship an aspect of the tree:

  • The growth cult worship the asexual and non-reproductive nature of plant growth - not fecundity, but the act of getting bigger over time through the influence of the sun and rain
  • The cult of cyclical change worship the passing of the seasons and any other repetitive phenomenon, such as menstruation, the movements of celestial bodies, and seasonal events like storms, bush fires, the rainy season, and so on
  • The cult of branching worship things which increase in complexity, such as webs, networks, and also junctions and nests
  • The cult of the state of being home to many things worship the very essence of providing a habitat for life, and are interested in parasites, things which grow on other things, settlements and buildings
  • The cult of rootedness worship fixity, the quality of being stuck into the ground, such as foundations or mountains, or the quality of being difficult to move, such as heavy rocks
  • The cult of being alive but not sentient worship the state of having no conscious interaction with the world
(They will obviously have snappier names.) These cults have created a settlement around the base of the tree by dint of creating temples and shrines and other religious buildings and institutions; merchants and other outsiders are tolerated because the cultists need foodstuffs and other outside supplies, and hence over time secular ghettos have also been created under sufferance of the religious orders who are in charge.

The roots contain the vast and ancient birthing chambers of a civilization of beetle people, whose degenerate young might still be found, alongside tamasic men, mukesids, pajikots, and other entities that like to inhabit dark, damp places. 

The trunk is mapped out (see here) and contains diverse adventure sites with methods of navigation in between. There are rocs' nests (akin to those of hornbills), lichen "forests", cracks and burrows leading to networks of tunnels, wasps' nests, ant's nests, and also genuinely weird and supernatural locations like sone lairs where gravity flows sideways; platforms stuck into the bark to support towers or other buildings; sites of pilgrimage for the different religious cults, and so on. Some of the content will be pre-made; there will also be some random tables to generate new locations as desired.

The branches are a vast sphere of different settlements and locations that are often above the clouds; their contents are determined in a looser and more random-table guided way.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

No Straight Thing Was Ever Made

I have always liked human characters, and human-centered fantasy fiction; there are lots of reasons for this, but I think fundamentally it is because there is something compelling about ordinary people in extraordinary situations (you might call that the root of all good fiction) and a fantasy setting is another layer of extraordinariness to stack on top of that. I was never the kind of person to favour playing a tiefling PC, for example. For me it was always much more interesting to wonder what it would be like to be a common-or-garden schmuck trying to get by in the multiverse.

(The same was always true of 40k, too. The Imperial Guard are the most interesting army, because the idea of ordinary human soldiers trying to take on chaos marines, tyrannids or eldar is itself simply the stuff of a good story.)

Let's face it, I also rather like the romantic mystery of the "other": dwarves, elves, etc., are much more compelling to me as inscrutable non-humans whose motivations and impulses might be gleaned from observation and experience but only very imperfectly. They are rendered much less interesting by having the human mind of an RPG player inhabiting them. 

That said, fantasy settings, particularly RPG ones, tend to revolve around four ways of presenting humans, all of which I think are honourable and good in their own way, but there is a neglected fifth option which would be worth exploring.

The first way of presenting humans is found in settings in which human beings tend to dominate because of some reason to do with their nature: they are more lively or creative, perhaps, than other races, or they are able to master commerce better, or there are simply more of them. Mystara overall presents humans in this way.

The second way is settings in which human beings are just another race jostling alongside others, a la Planescape or Faerun - you might call this the Mos Eisley cantina model. 

The third way is settings in which human beings are fighting for survival in a world full of monsters and horrible nasties, and indeed much of the excitement of the game comes from this - this is the "points of light" model found in 4th edition D&D and, I suppose, the Conan stories and sword & sorcery in general.

The fourth way is settings in which humans are the main focus simply because the setting is predicated on there being a human world and some sort of mythic otherworld along the lines of Mythago Wood or Narnia which can be entered but has a discrete existence of its own.

The neglected fifth option is the setting which takes seriously the question: what niches would human beings actually occupy in a fantasy world in which there were dragons, giants, elves and the like? What would human beings do in that kind of a world? Particularly one in which they were only a minor race, a bit like sverfneblin or gnomes in your standard D&D world.

Think of a civilization ruled by cloud giants. What would humans do in it? Humans are a lot smaller than cloud giants: maybe they'd be used for the delicate tasks - tailoring, lock-making, clock-repair etc. - that giant fingers are ill-equipped for. How about a civilization ruled by dwarves? Humans are more creative and artistic: maybe they'd be the entertainers, dramatists and painters. How about a civilization ruled by elves? Humans might be their warrior class, doing all the fighting for their risk-averse long-lived rulers (you could easily imagine elven city states fighting vast wars all entirely fought-out by human underlings). Maybe in a civilization ruled by derro or dark elves there would be space for human beings as tenders to the sick; no self-respecting derro is going to look after a fallen comrade, but humans might. 

In such a world, human PCs might be looked upon as vaguely exotic, but not very special, outsiders suited to certain roles but firmly on the periphery of society. How they navigate that world might end up being just as interesting if not more so than the dungeon-delving or whatever else they got up to. 

Monday, 17 September 2018

Occupations of the Poor

I've just finished reading Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. It's a great book that I would recommend to anybody, but a section on the anthropology of Victorian-era poverty, drawing heavily on London Labour and the London Poor, a collection of columns by the journalist Peter Mayhew, published in the 1840s, is particularly fascinating. I've got that book on order and will read and report back, but here are some of the contents cited by Himmelfarb; they are some of the "occupations" of the 19th century London poor - all of them very usable for a game set in Bastion, Sigil, or other pseudo-Victorian megalopolis:

Child-strippers - "Old debauched drunken hags who watch their opportunity to accost children passing in the street, tidily dressed with good boots and clothes" - their aim being to steal and sell those childrens' clothes, and ideally also their hair.

River-finders - boatsmen who would sail up and down the Thames, "hauling out the flotsam of wood which might be used for firewood or a baby's cradle, or the occasional corpse which could be turned in for a reward after the pockets had been picked"; they were apparently a hereditary class.

Street sellers of animals - "each with his own specialty (stolen dogs, birds painted to resemble exotic species, squirrels, rabbits, goldfish, tortoises, snails, worms, frogs, snakes, hedgehogs)."

Bone-grubbers - people who searched the streets for bones to grind for manure.

Pure-finders - people who gathered dog shit, to sell to tanners for purifying leather.

Sewer-men - those who entered sewers in search of coins, scraps of metal, bits of jewelry, rope or bones to sell on; they often had higher earnings than the best paid artisans and believed sewer fumes to have therapeutic qualities.

Mud-larks - "Children and old women whose job it was to dredge the mud left by the receding tide. Wading and groping in the mud for pieces of coal, chips of wood, scraps of metal, and bones, they passed and repassed each other without speaking, their eyes fixed upon the ground, their bodies bent over, clad in tattered, befouled rags, 'stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.'"

Sifters - "half buried in mounds of cinders and ashes, sieving through them to separate the fine dust from the coarse both from other varieties of refuse. Garbed in heavy leather aprons, they wielded their sieves so violently that the noise of the sieves striking the aprons was like the sound of tenor drums."

Monday, 10 September 2018

Vignettes on Books

Chaucer, living in the 14th century, claimed he owned sixty books, which according to David Wright's introduction to my prose copy of The Canterbury Tales was "more than many university colleges possessed in those days." He may have been lying, but that almost makes the point even more forcefully: to him, having sixty books was something to really, really boast about.

I also recently read Tomlinson's Life in Northumberland During the Sixteenth Century (published in 1897 and sadly not even available as an ebook); in it, the author trawls through all of the wills made during the century to try to establish the number of books that existed in the entire county of Northumberland at that time. He lists comfortably less than fifty (not editions - fifty actual physical books) most of which are the Bible and almost all the rest of which are prayer books.

Before the printing press, books were rare. We all like the image of the wizard's study, lined with shelves stuffed full of ancient tomes on magic, alchemy, philosophy, ancient languages, monster lore, siege engines, and the like. There's nothing wrong with that. But in wider society books should be rare, special objects, almost unique, and very expensive.

Friday, 7 September 2018

GW and DnD: Fun Over Fairness

I recently played Kill Team, the new(ish) squad-based Warhammer 40,000 battle game. It has probably been approaching 20 years since I properly played a Games Workshop game, so it was interesting catching up on what has changed (you're not allowed to say "Imperial Guard" anymore; for some reasons Harlequins are an entire army list now) and what has not (no squats). What has certainly not changed is what you might call the Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games.

The Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games is: battles have to be fun from beginning to end, and closely fought. What this tends to mean in practice is that battles have certain characteristics which are at best orthogonal to and at worst antithetical to actual tactics and strategy, namely:

  • There's a huge element of randomness in everything, so in many cases cleverness is confounded by a bad dice roll here or a good one there
  • The battlefield is really small and crowded and there aren't many battle rounds, so there is no sense in performing reconnaissance or carefully deploying or even really thinking very hard about what's going on except in a rock-paper-scissors way (he's got a battle tank over there so I'd better try to get line of sight on him with this lascannon; he's got a squad of terminators over here so I'd better find a way to get my meltagun guys over there too, etc.)
  • There's no consequence to weapons fire except at the level of whether it kills somebody or not, so you can't really deny an area to the opponent or destroy scenery or interesting things like that, and so everything that you do in a turn tends to revolve around destroying the enemy things you can see
  • Initiative is random and doesn't depend on anything clever or stupid that any of the players has done, and makes a huge difference
I'm not complaining about any of that particularly - it's fun - but it does make "battles" in Games Workshop games more of an exercise in just throwing the armies together and seeing what entertaining stuff happens than a tactical wargame per se

When you think about it in those terms, Games Workshop battles are really pretty like the way combat plays out in D&D - not perhaps by design, but by the preference of most RPG players. The immense weight that can become attached to single dice rolls. The fact that, without a battle mat, the locations of the combatants becomes sort of notional and everyone can more or less get at everybody else at a moment's notice. The general (not total, but general) focus on both sides killing each other rather than other objectives. The largely random way initiative plays out.

This says a lot, I think, about both games and the way people tend to approach them: it's more important that fun stuff happens during combat than that final results are fair. It doesn't particularly matter that the conclusion reflects perfectly the actual approach taken both sides and their relative skills in planning and execution. It matters much more that PCs x and y did cool things to win the day; PC z made a save vs death successfully three times in a row; that random Imperial Guardsmen (sorry, Astra Militarium guy) somehow survived a lascannon hit; that snotling took down a Great Unclean One; and so on. The fun is not in finding out who is the best tactician; the fun is in finding out what happens.